New research explores why we have an unequal set of social policies that exacerbate inequality instead of combating it.
By Rachel Black
(Photo: Alyssa Kibiloski/Unsplash)
Before Donald Trump took the oath of office, Washington’s chattering classes were abound with speculation about how the then president-elect might govern. As a secret moderate? As a foil to Congressional Republicans? As an authoritarian? Less than a week into his term, the new president made his intentions clear — he plans to govern as he campaigned. The problem for the American people is that candidate Trump’s campaign promises flowed from bias, stereotype, and “alternative facts.” As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote:
Presidents, in other words, keep their promises…. Above everything else, Trump promised to bring the power of the federal state to bear against the domestic enemies of the people, defined in explicitly racial terms. From his perch in the Oval Office, Trump would “protect” the American people from Muslim refugees, “dangerous” Hispanic immigrants, and groups like Black Lives Matter. On this, Trump was consistent. This wasn’t mere rhetoric; this was a set of serious promises to deal with literal threats. And this week, the newly minted president has begun tackling them, one by one, in rapid succession.
As abhorrent as Trump’s actions may be, they’re not anomalous. To the contrary, they are part of a long history; one that finds the United States repeatedly subverting its ideals of broadly shared freedom and opportunity in the service of maintaining a hierarchy that can only exist through oppression and exclusion. Over the next four years, then, it won’t be enough to fight mounting injustices. We must also ruthlessly identify and eliminate ways that this hierarchy already exists within our policies and institutions and embrace an alternative model of policymaking that honors and thrives on diversity instead of marginalizes it.
As New America argues in a recent paper, they have documented evidence of a hierarchy that permeates the very social policies that bear the responsibility for securing these ideals. From financial security and education, to child care and workforce development, we have a separate and unequal set of social policies that exacerbate inequality instead of combating it.
This bifurcation is created by sorting Americans demonstrating some indicator of merit or virtue (once upon a time, simply whiteness), like having full-time employment or living in a nuclear family, into a set of policies on the top-tier, while slotting everyone else in at the bottom. Importantly, the gate-keepers to these tiers have been shaped by long histories of racial and gender discrimination and fail to reflect the diversity of forms taken by modern American families. So, by conditioning benefits on these criteria, the social policies that have been constructed to advance equality of opportunity are, in fact, replicating patterns of bias and exclusion within the economy and society.
This pattern exists throughout our social policy, but here is how it plays out in the context of wealth: A successful society needs to give its citizens pathways to wealth accumulation, not least of all because wealth is an essential buffer against hardship, whether it comes in the form of lost income or some unexpected expense. It can also seed investments that increase financial stability over time, like obtaining a college education or enabling a secure retirement. Building that critical resource isn’t just about the value of individual thrift. To the contrary, it has always been shaped by government actions. The trouble is, those actions follow a longstanding historical pattern of systemic exclusion.
For example, farm workers and domestic workers, predominantly African Americans, were intentionally excluded from Social Security coverage for the sake of securing the political support necessary for the legislation to pass. Other wealth-building initiatives that helped give rise to a prosperous white middle class, such as the Homestead Act and GI Bill, were administered along this pattern. Restrictive residential ordinances and “redlining” further restricted access to the credit necessary to purchase homes, maintaining segregation that depressed home values in majority-black neighborhoods.
Though wealth-building policies today are less overtly racialized, they overwhelmingly privilege wealth held by the already-wealthy instead of creating on-ramps for new wealth creation. Today, the average net worth of white households is 13 times that of black households, a racial wealth gap at its highest point since the 1980s. That’s a direct result of both this legacy of racial discrimination and of our society’s ongoing failure to atone for the consequences of past approaches to social policy.
Rather than recognize these disparate outcomes as the predictable result of distinct policy choices, they are often portrayed as the product of poor personal choices and individual failures, affirming the false narrative that justified the policies in the first place. This stigmatizes not only the programs but also their participants.
In New America’s view, the only way to disrupt this cycle and safeguard against attempts to assign greater value to some Americans than others is to replace our current separate and unequal system with one that embeds the ideals of inclusion and equity directly into our policies — and into the processes that design them.
The model, which is called the family-centered social policy, applies the principles and methodology of human-centered design to social policy. That means originating policy design around the needs and wants of the families the policy is intended to serve. It also means democratizing the process to include direct participation by the families themselves. There are promising examples of participatory policymaking already in practice across the country that can serve as models for adoption. By centering design choices around those who have been placed at the margins by existing policies, giving these families a meaningful voice in the design process, and evaluating the effectiveness of interventions according to their outcomes, this model marks a radical shift in the power dynamics of how policy is made and who it works for.
Seeming to anticipate this moment in our national history, John F. Kennedy told the 1962 graduating class at Yale University: “For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”
This approach offers a powerful alternative model that builds from the truth that all Americans are deserving of the same dignity and respect, not the myth some of us are better than others. By putting the people marginalized under our current approach at the center of policy design, we can affirm that this is a commitment made to all, not just some, of us. It’s in living up to these values that we make America great.
This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.